After Chesa Boudin
James King, a criminal justice reform activist in the Bay Area, discusses the progressive San Francisco district attorney in the wake of a successful recall campaign.
District Attorney Chesa Boudin embraces supporter Dayday Reynolds Priestly as he canvasses on 3rd Street in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco ahead of the recall on Tuesday, June 7th, 2022.
On Tuesday, around 60% of participants in a recall campaign in San Francisco voted in favor of removing Chesa Boudin, the city’s district attorney, midway through his term. Boudin, the 41-year-old son of the late radical activist Kathy Boudin, was elected in 2019 on a criminal justice reform platform emphasizing alternatives to incarceration, as one of a series of elected officials across the country who are trying to dismantle the decades-long “war on crime.” His defeat is being widely interpreted as part of a growing national backlash against decarceration efforts and the left more generally.
To better understand Boudin’s rise and fall in context, for this week’s newsletter (subscribe here) I called up James King, the campaign manager for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. King, who lives in Oakland, is himself a formerly incarcerated person and has worked on multiple campaigns in California focusing on helping the communities most impacted by prisons and policing, sometimes together with Boudin. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
David Klion: Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got involved in criminal justice activism?
James King: I grew up in Ferguson, Missouri as a member of one of the first Black families to move into that community. During my teenage years in particular, I experienced a lot of predatory policing. I was at a phase of my life where I was acting out, and in my neighborhood, that behavior was criminalized. During my early twenties and even into my thirties, I started cycling in and out of prison. By 2004, I was in San Diego, where I was charged and sentenced under California’s three strikes law and given 30 years to life. At San Quentin State Prison, I began to study and learn about systemic and cultural issues that had contributed not only to my internalizing a criminalized view of myself, but also to extreme and often racially based sentencing disparities. I began to work on policy while incarcerated—I became really enamored by the idea that I could participate in democracy even though I couldn’t vote. In 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown commuted my sentence. I moved to Oakland, which was near San Quentin and where I had built a lot of relationships with a community engaged in advocacy and policy work. I began working for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights as a state campaigner working on policy campaigns. Some I’ve been involved in have included the Stop San Quentin Outbreak Coalition, passing the AB-256 Racial Justice Act for All, and AB-292 last year, which promoted access to rehabilitation for people who are incarcerated.
DK: For readers who aren’t in the Bay Area, can you summarize how Chesa Boudin was elected in the first place, what he accomplished during his term, and how this recall campaign came about?
JK: The Bay Area, like most of America, became outraged by police violence and the extreme sentencing and over-criminalization of Black people and other people of color that came to light starting around 2012 when Trayvon Martin was murdered, and then with the execution of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson in 2014. In addition, San Francisco had its own police scandals, including one in 2016 involving racist texts between San Francisco police officers. Chesa ran for office in 2019 against that backdrop, as a former public defender who saw the prosecutor’s office as a means of reshaping our legal system to be more just. He understood that punishment and retribution were not the true path to public safety, that there were diversionary programs and alternatives to incarceration, and that his office could be impactful in diverting resources that would create a more meaningful path to public safety. That was his campaign message. He won resoundingly and took office before the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and he went about enacting his policies.
One thing that I don’t think is up for debate is that the policies he enacted created a lot more safety for people who are impacted by the legal system, without raising crime statistics or recidivism rates in the Bay Area. Chesa successfully reduced the population of the county jail in San Francisco by over 30%. He also rectified extreme sentencing for hundreds if not thousands of people, bringing them home and reuniting families. His policy [of not pursuing sentencing] enhancements meant that he successfully addressed harm in California in a way that wasn’t racially biased and didn’t produce extreme inequities for people of color and low income people. I think those are some of his greatest successes.
Regarding the recall effort, the first thing that I would say is that California’s recall laws are extremely biased in favor of people with resources. A wealthy minority can buy a recall campaign if they’re so inclined. Even before Chesa was elected, there was a passionate minority of Republican donors and wealthy elites in San Francisco who did not support his policies, and almost from day one of his term, they launched an effort to gather signatures for recall. It failed multiple times before they finally succeeded in getting it placed on the ballot. But once it’s there, it becomes a referendum on the incumbent. In this case, even though a lower percentage of people voted to recall him than actually voted to put him in office in the first place, he was still able to be recalled. It’s actually very undemocratic.
DK: Who were these funders, broadly speaking, and what were their grievances against him?
JK: The money has mostly come from people who lean conservative or who are self-identified Republicans, and who formed a coalition with a lot of wealthy elite liberals in California. But there was a lot of participation and buy-in from other demographics in San Francisco, largely as a result of the pandemic and of quality of life becoming increasingly worse in California and specifically in the Bay Area. There’s been more attention paid to property crimes, like retail theft and car break-ins, and to low-level drug offenses. There’s a fentanyl epidemic throughout the nation, and San Francisco is not immune to that, so there are a lot of low-level drug offenses occurring in the Tenderloin district. All of this is happening within the context of a housing crisis—there’s an extreme lack of affordable housing in San Francisco, and a large unhoused population.
What’s less clear is how Chesa Boudin became the public face of these issues. The district attorney doesn’t have much say in creating policies to promote affordable housing. The only thing the district attorney can do is to criminalize unhoused people, and that’s something the office was not inclined to do under Chesa’s leadership. So when you have voters who are fearful of their property values going down and who see an uptick in nuisance behavior that has been criminalized, they just want to see a stronger law enforcement response. Chesa’s premise upon entering office was that this does not create public safety, but that it actually further destabilizes communities and disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color.
DK: As best as I understand, overall crime is down significantly in San Francisco, as it is here in New York and other major cities, compared to 20 or 30 years ago. And yet there’s a perception of a crime spike in these cities, which seems to have fueled both this recall and New York’s election of a former cop, Eric Adams, to serve as mayor on a law and order platform.
JK: There is not a crime spike happening, except in limited areas. But what is, I hope, peaking is frustration with a diminishing quality of life as a result of the pandemic. The pandemic revealed serious inequities in our society, as well as a lack of social safety net infrastructure to mitigate them. Back in March 2020, when we were first grappling with the pandemic in California, there was talk about creating affordable housing in order to get people off the street and to mitigate the pandemic. But that and other large-scale systemic changes eventually became reduced to small tweaks around the edges that didn’t actually change the status quo. As a result, people are really frustrated, and the cost of living continues to rise.
On top of that, San Francisco has around 8,000 unhoused people. That type of visibility causes genuine discomfort for people who have more resources. What’s lacking is any type of plan to deal with the root causes of what we’re seeing. The much easier route is to make one person the face of it and initiate a recall campaign, as if that will actually change the status quo. It won’t.
DK: What lessons can other elected officials working for criminal justice reform, like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, take about how not to lose power and what works and what doesn’t?
JK: The first takeaway is that it’s not enough to get the right elected official into office. That’s not where the advocacy ends; as I mentioned, the signature-gathering campaigns against Chesa began almost before he took office. It’s crucial to ensure that district attorneys and other elected officials are properly resourced in order to implement their agendas. We need a more holistic view of the electoral process.
In addition, one critique I’ve heard is that it’s not really helpful, when voters are expressing fear and anxiety, to respond with statistics that seem to minimize their concerns. A more effective approach going forward would be for elected officials to talk about what they’re doing to address those anxieties and fears, and about what alternative approaches to incarceration mean for the communities that they are working within.
DK: What kind of role has the media played in shaping public perceptions around the recall campaign and the wider national conversation around urban crime? I’m particularly curious if you read Nellie Bowles’s much-hyped piece in The Atlantic yesterday that presented an apocalyptic view of the author’s hometown of San Francisco.
JK: You’re talking about the piece that said San Francisco has become a failed city? Yeah, I read it. The first thing I would say is that the media has been a key contributor to misinformation around how we can keep American neighborhoods safe and healthy. The people who work in media are an elite. Someone like me can’t just become a media figure; you have to have a certain training, and you’re brought in and cultivated through a formal education process, which means that the people covering these issues are not representative of the people who are most impacted. They often get the story wrong, because they don’t have the relevant experience to know who to talk to and to evaluate the information that they are receiving.
Secondly, we’ve built a media culture around clicks, which means that sensational headlines are going to get more attention than more sensitive and balanced reporting. That piece in The Atlantic is doing gangbusters, whereas some of the more nuanced pieces I read this week, like one by Adam Johnson in The San Francisco Chronicle, aren’t getting nearly as much attention. The pieces that are designed to get clicks are building off of a pre-existing narrative that has been going on for decades, fear-mongering about rising crime, so that even the reporting I would rather read has to be in conversation with that fear-mongering in order for readers to understand. So I think that the media has contributed to a widespread misunderstanding not just about how safe or functional our communities and our neighborhoods are, but also about what law enforcement is actually doing, what role they should be playing, and what they’re capable of.
The last point I’d make is that efforts like this recall that center a particular person or office in what should be a larger debate about how we are going to create a more inclusive society ultimately hurt us all. San Francisco had an opportunity this year to really grapple with its lack of affordable housing, with harm reduction in the face of substance abuse, and with the relationship of poverty to retail theft and other lower-level offenses. But instead, they poured tens of millions of dollars into removing a person from office, which won’t directly impact any of that. It’s a travesty.